The Living Language of Worship

by Paul Westermeyer | December 05, 2006

Inclusive language—language hospitable to all people and the whole creation—has perplexed the church in our generation. Some people have radically rewritten hymn texts, some have stubbornly opposed any changes at all, and some have sought a middle ground. Some editors simply include unaltered and altered versions of hymns back to back so that congregations can choose one version or the other.

Efforts like these have been greeted with varying degrees of pleasure and hostility. We have learned from the experimentation, but there is still no consensus. Though new rounds of disagreement continue to emerge, stereotypical extremes have receded as the complexity of the discussion has become more apparent.

I’ll try to unpack the topic here by analyzing some key issues—especially those related to masculine and feminine imagery—and by suggesting how we might proceed.

Key issues in considering inclusive language

Inclusive language and questions of idolatry

Inclusive language raises questions that have to do with idolatry. We are called to worship God, not our words or our images of God. As finite creatures we will necessarily use anthropomorphic language to refer to God. That is, we use human attributes to describe or envision the God whom we address, as in Psalm 108:6, “Save us by your right hand, O God.”

Such language is always imperfect. If we understand this imagery literally in our worship—as if God literally has a right hand which we attach to God’s essential being—we worship a God of our creation rather than the Creator. That is idolatry.

The commandment is clear: we are to have no other gods besides God alone. As Christians, we believe God has been made known in the mighty acts recorded in the Old Testament and has been most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.

Idolatry leads to injustice

Idolatry is not benign. It leads to injustice. If we worship a right-handed God, the implication is that God’s left hand, assuming it exists, is less important. That in turn can imply that the God we worship must favor right-handed human beings over left-handed ones. And that in turn can imply that right-handed people are more like God than left-handed ones.

Likewise, if we worship God’s essential being as male, then the implication can be drawn that men are more like God than women. If the God we worship is perceived as white, then white people can be seen as more like God than black people. If the God we worship is perceived as a warrior, then we may well conclude that we are to conquer others in the name of that God.

In each of these cases, the way God’s essential being is described in our worship affects the way we treat each other.

God is greater than we can imagine

Language is directly related to this progression. If all our language about God invariably calls to mind God’s right hand, the weight of this imagery will affect how left-handed people are perceived and treated. Similarly, if all of our language about God is male and patriarchal, then women are more likely to be regarded as second-class citizens.

We each have to make decisions about the God Christians worship and about the biblical witness to that God. Here’s the way I read that witness.  

  • The many examples of women in the Bible, from Miriam to Sarah to Deborah to Hannah to the Marys and the other women who gathered around Jesus, suggest that God cares about women as much as God cares about men.
  • All of us are regarded as equal by God, for in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, nor any other distinctions (Gal. 3:28).
  • The biblical imagery about God is not exclusively male (for example, Jesus compares himself to a mother hen in Matthew 23:37, and God is described as a fortress and a rock in Psalm 18:2). Even masculine imagery reveals graciousness toward all people by a God in Christ who, unlike earthly rulers and all human men and women, cares about the least of all of us.

The nature of God’s being always trumps, breaks, revises, recreates, renews, and re-sets all of our imagery. God is not what we imagine. What we imagine is always made new by God, not the other way around.

Limitations of language lead to change

Language changes. Male pronouns for humanity may once have been regarded by both men and women as generic and not oppressive, but in our day many people, both men and women, do not understand them that way.

Whatever any of us may think individually about this linguistic shift—whether we regard it as good, bad, or indifferent—is finally not very important. Language functions the way it functions and is regarded as it is regarded. Those of us committed to worship materials in the vernacular must attend to its characteristics.

This is easier said than done. Here are a few important things to keep in mind as your congregation considers the issue of using inclusive language in worship.

  • Changing familiar language in worship plays with people’s memory banks. That is a significant matter which raises its own questions of justice. For example, to change texts which have been known and used for many years is to shut out old people who cannot see well to read or who have little left except their deepest memories.  
  • On the other hand, since language changes and communities of faith live in the present, not the past, changes have to be made. Christian communities of faith are always called to figure out their responsibilities to both past and present. They are neither museums nor reflections of the current culture. They draw from both past and present and stand against both. Questions of language are simply a part of this larger duty and delight which they face.          
  • Poetry is important. Changing a hymn, which is a poem set to music, cannot be done lightly without serious consequences. Poetry has to do with beauty, which has to do with how well a hymn will sing. Forcing a non-poetic agenda on a hymn treats people badly. Sooner or later they will stop singing what is not well-crafted.
  • There are different opinions about to what extent an author’s text should be respected and to what extent it belongs to the community once it leaves the author’s hand and is sung by the body of the baptized. My own view is that, although authors’ words need to be deeply respected, in the final analysis the community of the baptized “owns” a hymn and will eventually make alterations over time—as judiciously and modestly as possible, one hopes.

These issues are complex, and cases have been argued strongly on all sides. Yet changes are inevitable as texts are translated from one language to another, as the language a hymn is written in itself changes over time, and as the understanding of the faith brings different emphases and deeper understandings from generation to generation.

The language of proclamation and praise

What then should we do? Press on with care and compassion! What does that mean? It means trying things as responsibly as possible—that is, very well thought-out efforts that are likely to have staying power with a wide constituency instead of frivolous or last minute fixes. It means admitting failures and trying again. It means thinking as far as possible beyond our present narrow time frames. This involves gaining wisdom from those who have gone before us in their mistakes as well as in their well-conceived judgments and by thinking into the present and the future on behalf of the other.

The solutions are not easy. We lack clarity and agreement about precisely what to do. In the last ten years or so I have been much perplexed by some young women who have opposed inclusive language more than young men. The complexity was ratcheted up several notches recently when I got a note from a woman who had challenged me in class several years ago about my concern for inclusive language. She said she had changed her mind. Why? Because in her job she had come to see how language related deeply to people’s perceptions and actions.

Not only do we lack clarity and agreement about what to do. We also do not yet have a Thomas Cranmer in our midst who can fashion language the way he did in the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer provided language with lasting beauty and impact for English-speaking worshipers in and beyond the Anglican Church.

Language which is not easily sung will never work. Pressure by individuals or groups who try to force a specific solution that neglects sound and its flow—no matter how just the solution may seem or how strongly someone may feel about it—will always unravel and undo itself. That’s because such special-interest agendas are seldom related to the community’s welfare. Over time the community will sniff them out for what they are.

The underlying problem we face is that we are still searching for a vernacular which can express the faith in language which befits the nature of praise. Hymns very often move from proclamation and prayer to praise of God, that is, to final stanzas of doxology. Proclamation and praise, not agendas, undergird and drive justice. Our generation has yet to discover what might be called the intrinsic language of doxological beauty and grace.

None of this means we should stop trying to figure out what inclusivity means or how to embody it in our language. We live in the flux of human history the same as our predecessors have done. We are called to our particular vocation in our time and place. Part of that vocation is to work at the inclusivity the Christian gospel brings with it, not only “with our lives,” but also “with our lips.” The two are integrally related. In the final analysis we will not do one without the other.

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